Angels in America
Perestroika, Act Four, Scenes 6–9
Emily, Prior's nurse, berates him for endangering his health, but he is well aware that he is in trouble. He introduces Hannah as "my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother." When Emily leaves, Prior tells Hannah that he must be insane for having seen an angel; she replies that her religion is based on the idea that Joseph Smith encountered an angel of God. Prior asks her whether any prophets in the Bible ever refused their prophecies—he has tried to run from the Angel but has failed. He senses the Angel's approach, and asks Hannah to stay with him and keep watch.
At home in bed, Harper asks Joe why he always closes his eyes during sex. She then answers her own question, saying that he imagines men. But the irony is that her time with him is the only time she does not have to imagine. Joe says he needs to go out to get some of his things. Harper demands that he look at her and asks him to tell her what he sees. "Nothing, I-" he stammers, and then stops. She thanks him for the truth.
When Joe enters Louis's apartment, Louis confronts him with a stack of Xeroxed articles—copies of the court decisions Joe has written. He is appalled by what he sees as the heartlessness and insensitivity of Joe's legal reasoning, especially a homophobic ruling in the case of a soldier discharged for being gay. Louis asks Joe, "Have you no decency?"—the same question that halted the career of Joseph McCarthy, a mentor of Roy's, in 1954. Louis demands to know whether Joe ever slept with Roy. As he berates Joe, Joe starts punching him repeatedly. Suddenly Joe stops, horrified at what he has done. Louis refuses help, saying that a little bleeding will do him good.
Ethel appears in Roy's hospital room. Roy is grinning because even though he is about to die he is still a lawyer. Ethel tells him he is wrong—the committee voted to disbar him and the recommendation was immediately accepted. She says she came to see if she could forgive him, but that all she can do is take pleasure in his misery. Roy falls silent, then calls out, "Ma?"—in his delusion he seems to think Ethel is his mother. In childlike tones, he says he feels bad and asks her to sing to him. Uncertain for a moment, she decides to sing softly to him in Yiddish. Just when she thinks he has died, he sits bolt upright—he was fooling her just to see if he could make her sing, exulting that he has finally won. He is gleeful for a moment, but then falls backward and dies.
Scene Eight is Louis's final repudiation of Joe—they will not see each other again in the play. Having learned that Joe is an intimate of Roy's, Louis decides to examine Joe's morality for himself, reading his court decisions. Appalled, he casts Joe out of his life with a towering self-righteousness. Louis, who once claimed he prefers the weighing of a life to the final verdict, has delivered a walloping verdict of his own.
The implications of the moment are disturbing. For one, it seems inconsistent on Louis's part: he has known Joe's politics since the day they met. That Joe takes a conservative position on judicial issues like environmental protection can hardly come as a surprise; even Joe's gay rights ruling, while lamentable, ought to be understandable to Louis. But Louis makes no further attempts to understand—even Joe's impassioned cries that he loves him fall on deaf ears.
Joe's attempts to justify himself—his snide reference to Louis as "the guy who changes the coffee filters in the secretaries' lounge," his defensive retort that the children were not really blinded or that law is different from justice, and most especially, his physical assault on Louis—seem intended to turn the audience against Joe, to make us take Louis's side once and for all. Certainly Kushner does not present Joe in a sympathetic light or offer him the chance to defend himself—he only reappears briefly in two scenes, mostly pleading ineffectually with Harper, and he is excluded from the triumphant epilogue at the Bethesda Fountain. All the other characters are forgiven to some degree, even Roy; Joe alone is unceremoniously booted from the play's society. And yet his only "crime" is that he is personally and politically conservative. This disconnect has led some critics to ask whether Kushner is fair to Joe. John M. Clum writes, "Kushner drops Joe off the face of the earth shortly before the end of Perestroika, as if he is unredeemable or simply not very interesting Yet in every production of Angels in America I have seen, Joe is the character I care about, anguish over." Joe's struggle to come out of the closet with dignity, to contribute to society or to maintain what seems to be a sincere spirituality count for nothing, with Louis or with the playwright. His apparently heartfelt love for Louis is disregarded and unlamented. In the end, he cannot escape that most dreadful label possible, "Republican." It is an aberration in Kushner's otherwise sympathetic and generous vision, but, perhaps for this reason, it is all the more provocative.
By contrast, Kushner's handling of Roy's death scene is deft and moving. With grim pleasure, Ethel informs him that he has lost the battle he has staked the most on, his desire to remain a lawyer until the day of his death. It is a staggering blow for Roy, which seems to push him over the edge into dementia—he appears to mistake Ethel for his long-dead mother. With this last defeat, the years of defensiveness and bile seem to melt away, and Roy is once again a vulnerable child; Ethel sings him a sweet Yiddish tune. It is a sentimental, three-handkerchief moment, an emotional resolution to Roy's death struggle. On its own, however, it would also be highly problematic: overly melodramatic and stereotypical (with her song, Ethel inhabits the Jewish mother stereotype more fully than ever), it could even be taken as excusing Roy's evil, a farewell lullaby for a murderer. Thankfully, the syrupy-sad tableau is punctured by Roy's springing back to life—to the very end he remains as petty and venal as he was in life. With this outrageously contrived two-step, Kushner allows us to have our teary deathbed scene and still retain the sharpness and vigor that characterizes the rest of the play. He acknowledges the tragedy of death without whitewashing Roy's failings.
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